I recently returned from the Knewton Education Symposium. Like last year’s Symposium, it was a blast for anyone involved with education--a 48-hour party for the mind. We had great participation from higher ed, K-12, and international markets. We had incredible discussions led by university presidents, teachers, and publishing company CEOs. And I had the opportunity to interview Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, our keynote speaker, which was a huge treat for me and all the other attendees. She was fantastic! Warm, fun, funny, super smart, and extremely candid. (More on the Symposium here.)
I opened the Symposium with a talk about disruptions I think are about to affect different parts of the education industry. One of those sectors is textbooks. Publishers have traditionally been low-margin businesses with huge infrastructure costs in content creation and distribution. I observed that quite soon Open Educational Resources (OER) will make free content possible at scale, and digital technologies will make free distribution possible. So how will publishers evolve?
We didn’t really explore these ideas again until our final panel, which was made up of leaders from the OER world. The session really got going when one panelist predicted that in the near future, 80% of textbooks would be replaced by OER content. Someone from the audience asked, “What should textbook publishers do?” The reply: “Prepare your investors.” It was a rare tense moment in an otherwise very convivial couple of days.
OER represents a tectonic shift in education materials. Try typing “mitosis” into Google. Almost every search result on the first few pages is for OER exploring the process of cell division. The same is true for nearly any other concept you type in: “subject-verb agreement,” “supply and demand,” “Pythagorean theorem”--you name it. And what you can find today on the Internet is probably less than one tenth of one percent of the OER out there. Most is trapped on teachers’ PCs.
Could free content at scale, distributed for free, break the textbook industry?
In a word: no. There are limitations to OER that offer the textbook industry ample room to add value in a post-OER world.
Given these limitations, I think publishers will have plenty of opportunity to adapt and innovate. If they do, OER won’t hurt their business. Instead, OER could help lower their costs and improve their product and user experience.
OER will commoditize education content. Nothing can stop that. But it will only partially commoditize it. Learning materials can much more easily be commoditized than, say, movies. Anyone can pick up a video camera and start shooting (YouTube is crammed with the results), but we don’t see a whole lot of crowd-sourced content on TV or at the local multiplex. However, learning materials aren’t nearly as easy to commoditize as dictionaries or encyclopedias are. Learning materials are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. No one will know exactly where they fall for another 20 years, but there is plenty of space for publishers to add value on top of OER--if they are willing to focus on higher value-add content, instructional design, and services. Publishers who can’t beat OER deserve to go out of business. Those who have a strong vision of what OER will, and won’t, do will thrive in this new landscape.